I feel there’s a general consensus that TV ain’t what it used to be. Now there’s nothing new in thinking that things ain’t what they used to be; golden age theory easily pre-dates any golden age you care to mention. A good place to spot golden-agers is the Manchester Evening News Postbag. (Regular readers will be aware of my one man campaign to preserve the integrity of this section’s online presence. I’m afraid I’m failing; many postbags are still missing despite assurances from the operations director of Guardian Media Group’s regional digital division.)
The MEN postbag is dominated by older people as they’re the only ones with the time and inclination to write in the old fashioned way and they generally go on about how wonderful things were when they were kids. They use some delightful pennames to complain about other people. Take a look at Bin There (sic), who blames DJs for crime because they no longer play slow and boring songs to put the punters to sleep at the end of night. S/he says, ‘It brought calm to those who didn’t dance’ – more like depression that you hadn’t copped-off! That same evening Stockport Reader blames it all on parents who drag their feral children around Bingo Halls (this never happened in the ’60s).
Someone’s wound up the old-codgers by asking why they didn’t plan for retirement (low pensions are a constant source of complaint) and provoked dozens of replies. Arnie makes the knee-jerk response that we’d be under German rule now if it wasn’t for him. The letters that sparked the furore haven’t been archived (Arnie says they were in on 12 July; Postbag wasn’t uploaded between 10-13 July). All of a sudden we hear just how bad the old days really were. Kath Lomas of Collyhurst worked from 14, as did Not A Moaner. Mrs Royle of Baguley didn’t have any opportunities, while Perplexed loser says saving for retirement is a waste of time. All these letters (and more) on just one night and plenty more before and after.
See. The golden-agers are plain wrong and the old days were v.poor.
Anyway. Back to TV. This is an exception, but not because old TV programmes were better as such, but because TV better catered for its audience.
Channel 4 recently showed Who Killed Saturday Night TV?, which was surprisingly well reviewed in the New Statesman. It was a two-hour chronology in the talking head style, but instead of having the c-list celebrities singing ‘Oh yes! I remember Saturday night TV!’ as is usual, it actually had people who knew something about the subject. A little after that the Manchester Evening News reported that ITV’s Big Idea is to bring back old, old series like Inspector Morse and Rumpole of the Bailey, as if they are just as relevant as they’ve always been, as if our tastes remain the same and as if we can’t watch re-runs on satellite and cable whenever we feel like it.
Viewers are deserting TV in their droves, with commercial channels losing out the most. Things are so bad at the UK’s largest commercial station by far, ITV, that they are yet again threatening to give up terrestrial analogue broadcasting, even though they’d lose most of their viewers (similar threats were made last time licences were renewed).
Who Killed Saturday Night TV? was frustrating because it never really got past lame excuses; people have more money to go out, yes but they go out later, say 9 o’clock; they watch DVDs, that is they prefer to pay when TV’s free; satellite means they’ve more choice, but the total audience is down; they’re on their PlayStations, the whole family?
The truth is that nobody is being creative. It’s a systemic problem that dates back to late ’80s and early ’90s. That’s when the whole industry structure changed and independent producers took over. Before then monolithic organisations like Thames and Granada dominated ITV and the BBC made most of its content in-house. Now the lion’s share of programme making for both broadcasters is contracted out to independents many of whom only make one series. Consequently, few are of sufficient size to offer significant training and the only way for fresh faces to get into television is to work for free on extended work experience placements. Television’s creativity has been destroyed by nepotism and failure to invest.